Sam Bradford had his best year statistically last season. He had his highest QB rating, highest adjusted net yards per attempt, most passing yards, lowest interception rate, best QBR, and led the league in completion percentage at 71.6%.
But he didn’t get much respect.
Most commentators poo-poo his completion percentage- he dinks and dunks all the time- and all but ignore his other stats:
- 2nd lowest interception rate in the league
- Highest PFF accuracy % in the league
- 6th best QB rating
Bradford managed all of this:
- behind probably the worst pass blocking offensive line in the league last year- leading to a high percentage of pass attempts under-pressure
- with the worst running game in the league
- with all of about 10 days to learn the offense and players before his first start.
A Former #1 Who Never Was
All that doesn’t fit the long-standing narrative of Bradford’s career: a former #1 overall draft pick who never lived up to expectations.
In many ways, Bradford’s career has been similar to another former #1 overall pick- Alex Smith. When I profiled Bradford last September, thinking he would improve as a Viking, and comparing his career with other #1 overall QB picks and other top QBs, I compared Bradford’s career trajectory with Smith’s, noting that Smith had gone through a lot of turmoil in San Francisco prior to Jim Harbaugh, but thereafter he improved as the team stabilized and had built up the talent level on their roster. And Smith’s ANY/A (adjusted net yards/attempt) a good measure of a QB’s overall passing performance, took a jump in that, his 6th year.
Comparing Bradford to Smith, and assuming Bradford would benefit from a solid organization and team around him in Minnesota, I postulated that Bradford could see a similar jump in his ANY/A at the same juncture in his career as Smith, which would bring him to an ANY/A of 6.37. As it turned out, Bradford’s ANY/A last year was 6.41 - almost exactly as projected.
But Bradford was able to make that improvement without the type of stability expected last September. Shortly thereafter the offensive line was decimated by injury, Adrian Peterson was lost for the season, and offensive coordinator Norv Turner abruptly resigned mid-way through the season. He did benefit from having a much better defense than he’s had anytime during his career, which helped to keep games close and defenses from teeing up even more on the pass rush.
A Super Comparison
This leads to extending the Bradford comparison with Alex Smith for this season. Smith’s 7th season was in 2012, his 2nd under Head Coach Jim Harbaugh. Smith benefited from the continuity, and continued to improve. His ANY/A took another jump of 0.63 yards before suffering a concussion (he had a bad finger as well earlier in the year), and being replaced by Colin Kaepernick, who was allowed to continue as the starter after Smith was cleared to play. This was the year the 49ers went to the Super Bowl and lost narrowly to the Ravens 34-31.
The comparison with Smith getting replaced by Kaepernick mid-way through the season is interesting too, considering what could happen if the same thing happened to Bradford... depending on Bridgewater’s rehab.... but we won’t go there.
In any case, Smith continued to improve that year behind a solid offensive line, and with a good supporting cast in RB Frank Gore and WR Michael Crabtree, and TE Vernon Davis, although Davis had a bit of an off-year that season. Smith’s other WRs included Mario Manningham and a lesser Randy Moss (who came out of retirement).
Looking ahead to Bradford’s season this year, he stands to improve from upgrades to the tools and talent around him, as well as the continuity from mid-season last year with Pat Shurmur, who he was worked with in the recent past in Philadelphia in 2015 and when he started his career in St. Louis.
Bradford starts the season with a solid trio of capable, proven receivers in Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph. Both Thielen and Diggs had nearly 1,000 yards receiving last year, and the Bradford to Thielen connection produced the highest QB rating in the league last year.
Kyle Rudolph also had his most productive year as a receiver, getting nearly twice as many targets last year as the season prior, and nearly doubling his receiving yards as well.
New Tools and Talent
Building on that, an upgraded offensive line, even if it turns out to be only average, will help relieve some of the pressure on Bradford, giving him a little more time to make his progressions and connect with receivers down field.
But beyond the upgraded offensive line, Bradford also will enjoy some added talent to work with at skill positions.
First, the prospect of having at least one more capable receiver emerge this year seems increasingly likely. Whether it’s the veteran Michael Floyd, or the 2nd-year rookie Laquon Treadwell, or Bucky Hodges, or Jarius Wright, or MoBo, or all of the above, it seems likely that at least one of those receivers will emerge to give Bradford another weapon to test the limits of opposing defensive secondaries.
Oh, and then there’s Dalvin Cook and Latavious Murray. Clearly an upgrade over McKinnon and Asiata last year, much more versatile, and at least with Cook, big-play potential whenever he touches the ball.
Beyond their enhanced ability to run the ball effectively, Murray brings a bonus in pass protection, and Cook an explosive threat as a receiver. Given that Bradford will still have a fair number of dump-offs or check-downs, having Cook be that guy will be a constant test of a defense’s ability to tackle well, and each dump-off has a bigger chance of turning into a big-play.
There’s a lot to like there.
Back to the Super Comparison
But getting back to the Alex Smith career comparison, if Bradford once again makes a similar jump in ANY/A like Smith did in year 7, that would take Bradford up to an ANY/A of 7.04 this season. Bradford may not have quite as good an offensive line as Smith had in SF back in 2012, but he will have a better receiver group and more versatile backfield to work with. Both had top defenses working for them too.
But it certainly stands to reason that with an improved offensive line, an off-season to work with the offense, a familiar offensive coordinator and system, and upgrades at skill positions, Bradford’s performance will improve.
And that 7.04 ANY/A number has some significance as well. As I wrote in the piece about Bradford last September, the past 4 Super Bowl winners had top 5 defenses in points allowed, and a QB ANY/A averaging 6.55- 7.02 if you discount Denver and Peyton Manning’s awful season. Factoring in the Patriots win- also a top 5 defense in points allowed (#1 actually last year) and Tom Brady’s spectacular 8.81 ANY/A last season, and that trend continues, with the average ANY/A at 7.00 over the past 5 years, or 7.37 if you discount Peyton Manning again.
But let’s focus on two key stats: ANY/A and top 5 defense in points allowed. Only 10 teams in the past 7 years have not won the Super Bowl when having the combination of a QB with an ANY/A of 7.00+, and a top 5 defense in points allowed.
Last year the Vikings defense was ranked #6 in points allowed, and Bradford had an ANY/A of 6.41. If the Vikings defense can improve one notch or more, while Bradford makes a similar leap in ANY/A as Alex Smith did at the same point in his career, the odds of a Super Bowl home game grow very favorable.
Will Sam Bradford improve his ANY/A this season to 7.00+ from 6.41 last season?
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The Vikings defense was 6th last season in points allowed. Will the Vikings defense make the top 5 this season?
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